Data portability needs social network buy-in, user education, panel says

Social networking firms must be shown the need to break down 'walled gardens'

SAN DIEGO -- Some of the technical barriers to data portability in the Web 2.0 world are gradually being chipped away. However, according to panel members at the O'Reilly Graphing Social Patterns West 2008 conference here today, many social networking firms must still be convinced of the benefits of opening their "walled garden" business models and users must be educated about the advantages of data portability.

Data portability, or the ability to easily transfer data created on one social networking site to another site, came to the forefront early this year when a prominent tech blogger was kicked off Facebook for trying to export his contact list.

Since then, companies like Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have joined the Data Portability Initiative, which was formed to create a blueprint for Web 2.0 data portability.

"The Web is becoming social, [and] all these applications are realizing that knowing more about who you are and who you know is a very powerful lens and filtering and discovery mechanism," said panelist Joseph Smarr, chief platform architect at social networking firm Plaxo Inc. "There is clearly this desire to go to the next level where as a user you can try a new site … and find out who you know and who you want to connect with [there]."

Smarr noted that work on standards like the OpenID single sign-on system, which allows people to use a single digital identify across multiple sites and OAuth, a protocol that allows people to securely publish and interact with data, has eliminated many of the technical barriers to data portability.

The most important barrier to overcome now, he contended, is convincing social networking companies with a business model of "walling in" users to join the data portability ecosystem.

In addition, although many users may want to have more control over the data they create on social networks, they might not know that data portability requires them to be in charge of their own data, Smarr added. "People kind of know what they want and what creeps them out," he said. "You should be able to say, 'We're already friends without you asking me everywhere we go.'"

For its part, MySpace is working hard to "whiteboard all these potential worst case scenarios" around data portability like what policies would be needed if someone posted information on a social network about another person that may harm them, noted Allen Hurff, MySpace's vice president of engineering.

"If you come to my site and say that Allen has [Attention Deficit Disorder], is that going to mean some insurance companies will not insure me?" he noted. "We definitely, absolutely feel that you own your profile. We absolutely want to support it, we just want to make sure it is the right thing for the user."

Ben Metcalfe, a consultant and a founding member of the Data Portability Initiative, noted that most users who post information to a social network already expect people to see it, so access controls don't necessarily need to be granular.

Metcalfe said that in addition to the companies that have already announced support for the portability project, several others are likely to support it once they complete work on products that support the importing and exporting of data between networks. He did not identify companies working on such products.

Metcalfe also noted that the Data Portability Initiative is working on developing reference use cases that people can use to help create common interfaces for communicating between sites. "If everyone does it on their own, it is going to become messy and difficult for the user," he noted.

Once in place, data portability likely will eventually lead to better products for users, Metcalf said, noting that if users can more easily export their content and photos, social sites will have to provide better features to attract users. "It creates the opportunity for companies who have the leading products to get the user base, and those who don't, who have held onto the silos … need to be need to be concerned. It puts more demand on every company to actually produce a better product," he added.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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